“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” starring and directed by Ben Stiller, takes its title and its central concept from James Thurber’s 1939 short story. Past that, the two fictions don’t resemble each other very much. And while Thurber’s short New Yorker piece has become a classic of the genre, Stiller’s very loose adaptation fades quickly from memory.
For starters, Thurber’s Mitty is a henpecked husband who escapes his nagging wife by daydreaming of himself in various heroic roles. In Stiller’s and screenwriter Steve Conrad’s version, Walter is a timid photo editor at Life magazine who has a crush on co-worker Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) but can just barely bring himself to send her a “wink” on eHarmony. The trouble, his connection at the connection site (Patton Oswalt) tells him, is that Walter’s life is so unremarkable, so devoid of incident and adventure, that there’s no material to work with.
As he is being informed of his own drabness, Walter “zones out,” imagining that he is saving Cheryl’s little dog from a burning apartment building — and missing his real-life commuter train in the process. When he arrives at work, he discovers that Life is going digital, endangering his job, along with almost everyone else’s. For the last cover of the print edition, the nasty transition chief (played too far over the top by Adam Scott) demands that Walter supply a picture sent to him by globe-roaming photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). Unhappily, that’s the one picture that Walter seems to have misplaced.
Threatened with unemployment and encouraged by Cheryl, he takes off in pursuit of Sean, apparently his last hope for replacing the lost negative. His daydreams quickly turn all-too-real as he journeys to Iceland, Greenland, Afghanistan and points between. He leaps from a helicopter into the shark-infested ocean, barely escapes an erupting volcano, skateboards down a lonely road, avoids warring tribesmen. When he finally finds Sean, in fact, their meeting is anticlimactic, a narrative letdown.
And that’s the problem with the movie. Director Stiller packs the story with adventures and colorful characters like a drunken pilot who sings karaoke in a remote Iceland bar. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh supplies some stunning settings for Walter’s heroics, often posing him against the landscapes to emphasize both his smallness in the scope of things, but also his heroism for undertaking his impossible mission. Like Dryburgh’s clever pictures, Theodore Shapiro’s musical track continually underscores the comic/heroic action. The film is a visual and auditory treat; however, the story gets tiresome and runs too long.
Stiller and film editor Greg Hayden consistently let scenes develop well past the point where they make the point, slackening the pace. Director Stiller is too much in love with actor Stiller: the camera never loses track of Walter for very long, even when interesting characters and actors — such as Shirley MacLaine and Kathryn Hahn as Walter’s mother and sister — demand more screen time. For a movie that aims to be adventurous, there’s way too much dead time, and it telegraphs its surprise ending way too early.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is rated “PG” for “some crude comments, language, and action violence.” Released amidst a slew of Big Holiday Movies, it has become something of an afterthought at the multiplex. Too bad, because lurking within the overblown spectacle there’s an engaging little movie trying to get out.